Background Buzz (More reflections from NACM)

73_background buzz

Despite the undisputed convenience and lower cost of online and virtual conferences, there will always be hard to replicate benefits from live conferences. Good conferences, in addition to the material presented, include networking and information exchanges that occur outside of and ancillary to the formal sessions. Moreover, I have found that most court conferences (and all the good ones) have a “buzz.”

I think the buzz from last fall’s Court Technology Conference and this winter’s NACM Mid-Year Conference have an interesting sub-theme of a major change in the wind.

Ever since the onset of the tsunami that now goes by name of “The Great Recession,” the background buzz at court technology conferences has been centered around catastrophically shrinking budgets and the dilemma of the need to invest in technology to meet the budget crisis, with no money to invest. My sense, from this year’s conferences, is that, while courts aren’t out of the budgetary woods yet (and probably will never be entirely), the focus of the conversation has changed. There’s still lots of discussion about cost benefits and how to best finance Information Technology infrastructure, but the attitude is, it’s happening and it’s going to continue to happen at an ever-increasing rate. So the buzz has now morphed to, “What does that mean? What’s going to happen? How do we ride this tiger and not become lunch?”

A not-so-secret fact of life for IT folks for the past few decades has been that one major (unacknowledged) strategy of a lot senior executives and judges regarding technology planning was to make certain that actual implementation would occur sometime AFTER their own retirement. In many ways, The Great Recession played right into that strategy.

No more. Most of the managers at CTC and NACM realize the change is going to occur on THEIR watch, and indeed is already under way.

In some ways, it feels like waking up from a long dream. True, some courts have pressed forward during the hard times. Still, many others have had to either postpone or greatly reduce their efforts, creating a huge, pent-up backlog of projects. Justice system pressures that were stressing court IT infrastructure five years ago are now past critical.

One result is that some questions from five years ago are simply not relevant today. For example, how tightly should document management be integrated with the Case Management System?

Courts are increasingly finding that CMS systems that provide “bolt-on” document management that allows documents to be stored with the case, as opposed to full-featured ECM, seriously limit the flexibility, leverage, systems integration and scalability required in today’s – and tomorrow’s – integrated justice system environment.

Likewise, is it better to start with ECM implementation first, then move to e-filing or vice-versa? Today, it’s pretty widely understood that courts need both; they need them universally and they need them yesterday. Attempts to implement ECM without e-filing run head-first into painful tradeoffs and limitations. Attempts to implement e-filing absent tight integration into a robust ECM with court-centric configurable workflow feel like building an airport on an island with no bridges to the mainland: passengers arrive; but they have nowhere to go.

So the talk seems to be turning to emerging Best Practices. Some of them include paper on demand, make e-filing mandatory, plan for and implement configurable workflow with your first (not last) implementation phase, and get in front of legislative and rule changes through ongoing and committed efforts across the justice system.

My guess is that the pace and penetration of ECM implementation in courts will continue to accelerate. The reason for the “What does it mean?” buzz is that people are realizing that, however implementation happens, it’s either occurred, occurring, or about to occur, and the planning for court life in the new IT paradigm, the vanguard of which is now ECM, is far from complete.

Exciting times.

 

 

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